An insatiable appetite for ancient and modern tongues

Overview. Turkic languages originated in the steppes of Central Asia from where they were carried west by nomadic peoples to reach Turkey and the Balkans, and north and east advancing into European Russia and Siberia. Comprising some thirty members and spoken by more than 160 million people, they are of the agglutinating type and typologically quite similar.

Distribution. Turkic languages are distributed over a vast territory ranging from eastern Europe to east Siberia and China. Their core area is in Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Xinjiang in China) from where they spread west to northern Iran and the South Caucasus, Turkey and part of the Balkans, and to the north into European and Asiatic Russia straddling the Volga, Ob and Yenisei rivers reaching northeast Siberia and the Arctic Ocean.

Map of Turkic languages distribution (click to enlarge it)

External Classification. The external classification of Turkic languages is disputed. Many scholars consider them one of the three subfamilies of the Altaic family (the other two are Tungusic and Mongolic). However, the parallelisms between Turkic, Mongolic and Tungusic are too few, according to others, to support the unity of Altaic and, therefore, they may be independent families.

Internal Classification. In contrast, there is agreement regarding the internal classification of Turkic. It is divided into six branches:

  1. 1.The Southwestern or Oghuz branch contains a western group comprising Turkish, Gagauz, and Azerbaijanian and an eastern group comprising Turkmen and Khorasani Turkic. The Salar language of China seems to be Oghuz in origin but during its eastward migration it acquired features from northwestern and southeastern languages.

  1. 2.The Northwestern or Kipchak branch has a western group comprising Kumyk, Karachay-Balkar, Crimean Tatar, and Karaim, a northern group comprising Tatar and Bashkir, and a southern group comprising Kazakh, Karakalpak, Kipchak Uzbek (considered a dialect of Kazakh), Nogai, and Kirghiz (Kyrgyz).

  1. 3.The Southeastern or Uyghur-Karluk branch has a western group represented by Uzbek and an eastern group represented by Uyghur.

  1. 4.The Northeastern or Siberian branch has a southern heterogeneous group comprising Tuvan (Tuva), Karagas (Tofa),  Khakas, Shor, Chulym, Altai, Yellow Uyghur (West Yugur) and a northern group comprising Yakut (Sakha) and Dolgan.

  1. 5.Chuvash situated in the northwestern area (in the Volga region).

  1. 6.Khalaj situated in the southwestern area (northwest Iran).

Speakers. The total number of Turkic speakers is close to 164 million. The following is a complete list of living Turkic languages with their number of speakers and distribution:













Crimean Tatar




Khorasani Turkic


Tuvan (Tuva)


Nogai (Noghay)





Yellow Uyghur





Karagas (Tofa)






























  1. Turkey, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Cyprus, Greece

  2. Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan

  3. Azerbaijan, NW Iran (Azerbaijan Province), Iraq, etc

  4. Kazakhstan, NW China, Uzbekistan, Russia

  5. China (Xinjiang), Kazakhstan

  6. Russia (middle Volga and southern Siberia)

  7. Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Uzbekistan

  8. Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, China (Xinjiang)

  9. Russia (between Volga River and Ural mountains)

  10. Russia (near Volga river)

  11. Ukraine (Crimea), Uzbekistan (deported by Stalin)

  12. Russia (Sakha Republic in north Siberia)

  13. Russia (Dagestan in north Caucasus)

  14. Northern Uzbekistan (Karakalpakstan)

  15. Northeastern Iran (Khorasan)

  16. Russia (north Caucasus)

  17. Russia (south Siberia)

  18. Southern Moldova, Southwestern Ukraine

  19. Russia (north Caucasus)

  20. China (Qinghai province, Gansu, Xinjiang)

  21. Russia (border with China, Kazakhstan and Mongolia)

  22. Russia (close to border with Mongolia, north of Altai)

  23. Iran (Markazi Province, north of Arak)

  24. China (northwest Gansu province)

  25. Russia (north of Altai and west of Khakas)

  26. Russia (Sakha Republic in north Siberia)

  27. Lithuania, Ukraine (Halych)

  28. Russia (southern Siberia, Chulym River basin)

  29. Russia (southern Siberia)


Note: It is not possible to estimate accurately the number of Khorasani Turkic speakers. There may be between 400,000 and one million or more.

Oldest Documents. They appear in the territory of the second Türk empire, written in Old Turkic with the native 'runic' script. The earliest are engraved in an ensemble of four stone stelae erected, between 720 and 735, in the Orkhon valley (northern Mongolia) in honor of several rulers (the king Kaghan Bilge, his brother the prince Kol Tegin and their commander Tonyuquq). They tell about the origins of the Turks, their subjugation by the Chinese and subsequent liberation by Bilge.


  1. Phonology

  2. -Syllable structure. Most syllables have a (C)V(C) structure i.e. they contain a vowel that may be preceded by an initial consonant and/or followed by a final consonant. Initial consonant clusters are avoided as well as vowel hiatus (two adjacent vowels in different syllables).

  1. -Vowels. Many Turkic languages (Turkish among them) have a completely symmetrical vowel system regarding height (4 high and 4 low vowels), frontness (4 front and 4 back), and roundness (4 unrounded and 4 rounded):


  1. The symbols are those current in writing, when they differ from those of the International Phonetic Alphabet the latter are indicated between brackets.

  1. Some languages (Turkmen, Khalaj, Yakut) exhibit a phonemic contrast between short and long vowels; those in the Volga region (Chuvash, Bashkir, Tatar) have reduced vowels.

  1. -Consonants. Most Turkic languages have a contrast between voiceless and voiced stops and fricatives, though a few others, like Chuvash, have only voiceless ones. They are usually articulated at four or five places: labial, dental-alveolar, palatal, velar and uvular-glottal. Gagauz and Karaim have palatalized consonants acquired by Slavic influence.

  1. -Sound harmony. It is widespread in Turkic. The most general type is intrasyllabic affecting the vowel and consonant(s) of a given syllable. The whole syllable is classified as front or back; in front syllables only front vowels and front consonants are allowed; in back syllables the opposite is true.

  2. There is also an intersyllabic type of harmony in which words tend to consist of syllables produced with either a back or a front tongue position. In some languages, like Yakut and Kirghiz, harmony may be extended to vowel roundness.

  1. -Accent. Turkic languages have a pitch accent (increase of the tone height), which tends to fall on the last syllable. Some suffixes are accentable while others are not. There is also a stress accent which tends to fall on the first syllable.

  1. Morphology

  2. It is agglutinative and suffixing. Stems are expanded by adding unchangeable and clear-cut monosyllabic suffixes, of which many serve to express grammatical notions. Morphology is regular and predictable and there is little or no fusion between morphemes. There are virtually no prefixes. The order of suffixes is rigidly established, derivational suffixes preceding inflectional ones. Each added suffix tends to modify the whole preceding stem.

  1. Nominal

  2. -Nouns are marked for number, possession and case (in that order). There are no grammatical genders.

  1. -The plural number is usually marked with the suffix lar/ler.

  1. -Possession may be indicated by possessive suffixes or by independent possessive pronouns (genitive of personal and demonstrative pronouns). The latter are usually employed for emphasis. Demonstrative pronouns distinguish three deictic degrees (proximal, intermediate, and distal).

  1. -There are six general cases: nominative (unmarked), accusative, genitive, dative, locative and ablative. Not all Turkic languages have this whole six-case system. For example, Yakut lacks genitive and locative but has a partitive case; in Chuvash the dative and accusative have merged; in Kumyk, Karachai-Balkar and in some Uzbek dialects the accusative and the genitive have merged. Other, subsidiary, cases are: equative ('like'), terminative ('until'), comitative (company), instrumental ('by means of'), directive ('towards'), etc.

  1. -Adjectives are morphologically similar to nouns. Intensive adjectives may be formed by reduplication of the first syllable.

  1. -Superlatives are formed by adding particles meaning ‘most' or 'best'; comparatives are expressed by particles meaning ‘more' or by putting the standard of comparison in the ablative case.

  1. -There is an indefinite article (identical to number one) but no definite articles. Demonstratives can, sometimes, act as such.

  1. Verbal

  2. -To the verb root derivational suffixes can be added to build up the verb stem conferring causative, reflexive, negative, passive meanings, etc. To the stem, tense/aspect suffixes and personal endings usually follow. The first and second persons are marked by personal suffixes, the third person is usually unmarked.

  1. -Non-finite forms include infinitives, participles, and verbal adverbs (converbs).

  1. Syntax

  2. -Word order is Subject-Object-Verb in Turkic languages. They are head final, modifiers preceding their head. In the nominal phrase the order is: demonstrative pronoun-cardinal number-adjective-head noun. Attributes do not agree in number or case with their heads.

  1. -Postpositions, corresponding to English prepositions, are placed after the words they modify. Conjunctions are used sparingly and most of the existing ones have been borrowed from non-Turkic languages. In genitive constructions the possessor, which is the first element, carries a genitive suffix while the possessed carries a possessive suffix.


    Turkic languages have been written with a great variety of scripts in the past (Runic, Uyghur, Brāhmī, Manichean, etc). The Arabic script was used for all Turkic languages after the adoption of Islam and until the beginning of the 20th century when it was replaced in many countries by the Latin or Cyrillic scripts. It is still used in China and Iran.

    In the former territory of the Soviet Union, Cyrillic-based scripts were imposed for all Turkic languages until its dissolution when some of them started a process of change into the Latin alphabet. The latter was introduced in Turkey in 1923.

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

-The Turkic Languages. L. Johanson & É.Á. Csató (eds). Routledge (1998).

-The Turkic Languages and Peoples. An Introduction to Turkic Studies. K. H. Menges. Harrassowitz (1995).

-Philologiae Turcicae Fundamenta, vol. 1. J. Deny et al. (eds). Aquis Mattiacis Apud Franciscum Steiner (1959).

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Turkic Languages

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